St. Paul author takes on burning grief in 'Firebug of Balrog County'

St Paul author David Oppegaard
St. Paul author David Oppegaard's new novel, follows of a young arsonist in a small town in an unnamed Midwestern state.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

St Paul writer David Oppegaard's new novel lights up a small town, almost literally.

Like many people who grew up in a small town, Oppegaard looks back with a mixture of love and eye-rolling skepticism. This is clear from a passage early in "The Firebug of Balrog County" where the central character, an 18-year-old called Mack, recounts the history of where he lives.

The first white men to see this area were fur trappers, hard-drinking, horse-whispering, bear-fighting dudes, and most of the towns are named after trappers who either died of some horrible disease, froze to death during one of our trademark winters, or killed a bunch of Indians before returning to the East Coast as wealthy wild-eyed men in pimping fur coats.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

A high school senior, Mack's disdain for local history is matched by his unfortunate clandestine career as an arsonist.

Oppegaard says there's a basic, and potentially dangerous, truth at the center of "The Firebug of Balrog County."

"There's a little firebug in a lot of 18 year old boys I'd say." Which could make one wonder about the author as a young man. "You think I have a past as an arsonist?" Oppegaard jumps in, posing the question himself. "It's a logical question. Actually (just about) everyone's like, 'So you like fire?'" Oppegaard says no. The firebug rose from somewhere else.

"I was trying to tell a story that ties into my real life," Oppegaard said, "And my own mother died of cancer when I was 21."

Oppegaard, who has already published three other novels, tried to write a story of a young man struggling to come to terms with his mother's early death. But it wasn't working. Then his agent suggested recasting it as a tale for young adults. He says by shifting the point of view back just a few years changed everything.

"The more I got into the mind of a high school arsonist, the more interesting his background became, and what drove him too it" Oppegaard said. "And how logically this would end up affecting everyone in his life."

The Firebug of Balrog County, by David Oppegaard
Minneapolis author David Oppegaard explores a dangerous mix of grief and matches in his young adult novel "The Firebug of Balrog County."
Courtesy of Flux Books

Oppegaard grew up in Lake Crystal, Minn., a few miles west of Mankato. He says as a high schooler in a small town, you pretty much know everyone, and they know you. Also while people are chafing to head off into the future, few have actually left. Oppegaard saw it as ripe with possibility.

"The Firebug of Balrog County" became a complicated story about a young man in turmoil in the fishbowl of a small town.

"It's a little different when you are 18 — you are still forming," says Oppegaard. "And it's been three years since his mother's death, so he's starting to come out of it a little, and that's just what's making him act out a little more because he's less numb now."

Mack begins burning things, and somehow evades detection. Complicating matters, his grandfather is the mayor, a Vietnam vet who makes catching the firebug his top priority. Oppegaard says he tried to capture the small town experience, or at least as his character lives it.

"Mack's very much a product of that small town kind of strangeness," he said. "Which is like, you can call it quaint if you are in a good mood, or you can kinda say it's stupefying if you are in a bad mood, and a lot of kids want to get out of that small town and then some people like it and they stay."

Oppegaard will read from "The Firebug of Balrog County" at Addendum Books in St Paul Friday night at 7 p.m. He was deliberately vague about the location of Mack's hometown. In the book Mack explains he calls where he lives Balrog County after a creature in "Lord of the Rings," which is described as "shrouded in fire." As a firebug, it's an image Mack likes.

Readers who live in small towns tell Oppegaard that he has captured aspects of their communities. He takes that as high praise. Also given what happens in the book, he doesn't expect to inspire young arsonists.

"I think the hammer falls hard enough that your average reader would get that starting fires isn't an optimal way of going about making friends and influencing people," he laughed.

Meanwhile, Oppegaard is hard at work on his next book. He describes it as a young adult horror novel based on the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder.